There is no doubt that Joel Stein is one of the preeminent humour writers of our time. Not only is he a regular columnist for The Los Angeles Times and Time Magazine, Stein’s résumé also includes stints in teaching and television production. His most impressive achievement thus far, however, is his unique sense of humor that follows his navigation from one hairy situation to the next—sometimes literally. Stein’s columns have garnered their fair share of controversy, to be sure, but they have also brought a surprisingly fresh and modern perspective to Henry Luce’s brainchild. Personally, I’m an avid reader of Stein’s Awesome Column and a great admirer of his work generally. His knack for tying current events and popular culture to his self-deprecating anecdotes epitomizes the role of the 21st century journalist. Stein’s writing is comparable to Judd Apatow’s comedies, and reminiscent of the classic humor tradition of Mark Twain. I contacted Stein a couple of weeks ago and he was nice enough to take the time to talk to me.
Chang: What is the main difference between your magazine persona and the real you?
Stein: I am far more handsome. Also, a lot more shy. And desperate to be liked. Magazine me is far more interesting than real me. Except for the handsome part.
You taught a seminar on humor writing at Princeton. Did you enjoy the experience? Is it something you will consider doing again?
I took the job just to say I taught at Princeton. I’m from New Jersey and they rejected me as an undergraduate, so when they asked me to apply for this position, I was excited. Then they turned my application down, saying I didn’t fit in well with the mix of class offerings that semester. I figured there was some cruel game where Princeton enjoyed rejecting me. Then they asked me to apply again and told me I’d be accepted this time. I did. They turned me down again, saying that right after 9/11, there was no appetite for humor writing. But the third time they took me. And I loved it. I usually don’t like working on stuff where I’m not getting a big, bold byline, but I really enjoyed teaching. I’d love to do it again. Maybe in Canada. But probably somewhere warmer.
Is there a secret to being funny?
It’s just a kind of math you train your brain to do. Also, it helps to be horribly insecure.
Having lived in both New York and Los Angeles, are you more of an east coast or a west coast guy?
This is the kind of question that got both Biggie and Tupac killed. I will not get involved in this war.
Growing up, did you always want to be a writer?
Ever since I learned that actors don’t get to decide what they say. This was long before Judd Apatow started making movies.
Twenty years ago, not many people would have been able to read your columns on the internet, let alone on their smartphones or iPads. Given the accessibility of the mass media today, would you say right now is the golden age for journalists everywhere?
No. It’s the golden age of anyone being able to write anything and get read. It’s not the golden age of being important as a journalist. Our jobs are becoming hobbies.
What is the best part of your job(s)?
Until I worked as a writer for a sitcom, stuck in a room for 12 hours a day, I thought my favorite part was the writing. That’s why I got into this. Interviewing people makes me nervous. But once I wasn’t reporting anymore, I learned that was the part I like best. All the life experiences you get, learning how other people think and what they do, that’s the best part of the job for sure.
What is your advice to English majors like yourself, specifically aspiring journalists?
Sleep around. That’s actually advice I’d give to people of any major. But it still holds.
I remember your column on naming your baby. Is Laszlo happy with his name so far?
He’s two and he’s just starting to be able to say it the last two weeks. He says “Lalo.” I think he’s going to be pissed off. My prayer is that he focuses his anger on that and not the circumcision.